by Rob Moseley
The Oregon men continued to hold serve Thursday in the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, and even got a couple of pleasant surprises at Hayward Field.
The Ducks may end up needing them, too, after the second session of the national meet ended in controversy for the host team.
Dakotah Keys finished third in the decathlon and Greg Skipper took fourth in the hammer throw, helping the Ducks lead the team competition with 26 points through two days. When Arthur Delaney (200) and Sam Prakel (1,500) busted the form chart by advancing to their finals, it looked like Oregon was poised to take command of the meet — until the day ended with Oregon's advancement in the 4x400 relay coming under protest.
The Ducks finished second in their heat of the relay in 3:03.80, which qualified them automatically for Saturday's final. But Arizona State — the first team out of the final based on Thursday's results — protested that the Ducks had committed a lane violation. Officials initially were waiting to review ESPN's footage of the race before making a final decision, which wasn't to take place until Friday morning, but announced late Thursday evening that Oregon was indeed disqualified.
When the relay team appeared to have a spot in the final secure, it was just the latest domino to fall in Oregon's chances for a team title. The disqualification was a blow to those chances — but not as big as it could have been, thanks to the big races by Delaney, Pepiot and Prakel.
UO runners went 1-2 in the first heat of 1,500 qualifying, with senior Mac Fleet winning in 3:45.90 and the freshman Prakel following in 3:46.06. Fleet was expected to advance to the final, and dual Arizona's Lawi Lalang for the title. But Prakel's showing Thursday, and the potential he could score Saturday, was a bonus.
"I was just thinking about the chance to score points and help the team," Prakel said. "We're going to need every little bit. Anywhere we can get points where they're not expected, like me in the 15, that can help a lot."
Though form charts didn't anticipate points from Prakel, Fleet said he's seen big potential from his training mate.
"His confidence level is slowly building, and that's what I've been talking to him about all year — you're better than you think you are," Fleet said. "… You do it once, you can do it again. This is one of the toughest fields to make — the 15 is incredibly deep, all sorts of foreign athletes. (But) he's in the final. He's one of the best 12 in the nation right now. That's something he's going to be able to fall back on for the rest of his career."
As the pair crossed the finish line, Prakel pointed to Fleet, in recognition of the mentorship he received, both Thursday and earlier this year.
"Having him here to train with me, and having him in the race too, I think helped me a lot," Prakel said.
Delaney finished second in his heat of the 200, in 20.71 seconds. He's all but assured of scoring by making the final, something that wasn't necessarily anticipated entering the week.
"I'm really excited," he said. "I don't think I was supposed to get second (in his heat), but I toughed it out."
Delaney also ran a very strong second leg of the 4x400, though it was his leg that was at issue with regards to the protest.
Pepiot also advanced automatically, with a fifth-place finish in his 3,000 steeplechase semifinal. He ran near the front most of the race, saw on the stadium video board that he was safely in the top five in the homestretch and eased up.
"I'm very confident, very happy with what I did today, and I look forward to the final," Pepiot said. "… I feel really good. At the end I felt like I could go. I just said, 'OK, do what you need to do to qualify, and you can fight on Saturday.'"
Skipper put the first points of the day on the board for Oregon in the hammer. He threw 228-0 on his first attempt, and improved to 229-3 on his fifth.
"The first throw is huge, because it will let you relax a little bit going into the final," Skipper said. "Especially if it's something like I had, where it got me into finals for sure. Then you can kind of just go for it. You've got five throws you just bought yourself with one."
Keys later posted a personal best of 8,068 points in the decathlon. He surged to fifth by leading all competitors with a throw of 223-8 in the javelin, the penultimate event, and improved two more spots by running the 1,500 in 4:28.29, second in the field.
Freshman hurdler Devon Allen won his heat of the 110 hurdles in 13.52 seconds, and also ran a leg on the controversial 4x400 relay. In the same heat of the hurdles, Johnathan Cabral stumbled out of the blocks and did not finish.